Oven Mania in a New Apartment

oven originalIf you are reading this post in the U.S., go look at your oven.  I bet it’s about 60cm (24 inches, approximately) wide.  My oven in our very Western house was about that size up until last week, too.  However, last week, we moved house (into a more Japanese apartment) and our oven experience has been the most interesting part.

We’ve known for a while that due to circumstances beyond our control, we would have to move before mid-June, but it took us a while to find the perfect place.  In fact, when we first saw the place that we eventually took, I rejected it out of hand on the basis of the oven.  The oven when we looked at the apartment, a mere ten minute walk from our old house, was only 20cm wide.  Think about it.  That is just under 8 inches.  There’s no way I was going to cook in an oven that’s only 8 inches wide.  I’m an American, for heaven’s sake – there are lots of ooey gooey birthday cakes to be made, and roasts to be cooked and veggies to be roasted.  I cook a lot!

That being said, the oven was state-of-the art Japanese.  It had a control panel

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

that came out at you when you touched the door of the oven.  It had every button possible (not that I could read them all, but still.)  It just wasn’t good for the type of cooking that I want to do.  Japanese people generally don’t bake, and they don’t roast.  Most Japanese cooking is done on the stove top – or in a rice-cooker.

My husband Marc, however, is  a pretty smart guy.  He knew that the apartment would be perfect for us, but also that it had been empty for a while, and he told our leasing agent that we would be willing to move in very quickly if they changed the oven to something a bit more reasonable.  At first they thought we needed a Western oven and they wanted to charge us a few thousand dollars to cut the cabinet to fit it.  But we didn’t need a full-on European or American model – we needed better than was currently there.  Marc measured my largest few roasting pans and found that they were mostly just under 40 cm wide.  The good ones any way.  Then he went to the Internet and found a Japanese model oven that was around 40cm wide (almost 16 inches) and emailed our agent, who in turn, emailed the apartment owner.

My new oven!

My new oven!

Within a week the owner of the apartment had agreed to change out the oven and put in the one Marc recommended if we would move in prior to May 18th.  I’m not sure why that day was so urgent to him, but it doesn’t matter.  We now have a wonderful gas  oven that is 40cm wide.

The whole piece – oven, stove-top, fish grill – is state-of-the-art.  It has a sensor for pots so the gas can’t be left on too long, or cuts off in an earthquake.  It has true control of fire – and get this – battery backup in case of loss of power.

The battery backup!

The battery backup!

I can’t use my very largest roasting pan, and I can’t make a huge Thanksgiving turkey in this oven.  But beyond that, I can do everything I want to, and so far, it is pretty darn great.  I think we’re going to have a wonderful new life here – and now we’re really cooking!!

A Plate Full of Goodies – But What Are They? Dessert!

acqua pazzaLast week a dear friend took me to Acqua Pazza – a great Italian restaurant in Hiroo for a special lunch.  While the company was lovely and the meal was delicious, what really stood out was the dessert.

As is usual in Tokyo, lunch consisted of a choice of three different set menus, all of which contained a pasta as the main course.  All of the sets started with Bagna Cauda – veggies and a hot anchovy dip.  Then there was an appetizer and a pasta dish (one of which was venison, but we had smoked fish pasta – yum!) and then dessert and coffee to finish it off.

Normally with these sets, you get a small taste of dessert just as a tiny, post-meal-sweet-satisfier.  But not this.  This set dessert arrived on a huge plate with seven small tastes.

Starting from about 12 o’clock, they are:

  1.  strawberries with pepper on top
  2. sweet fruit tomato on a bed of soft cheese
  3. hazelnut cake with a touch of cream
  4. mini-napoleon
  5. sweet cream ice cream
  6. (center) dried fruit biscotti
  7. candied ginger

Each item was so different from the others.  The tomato really did taste like a fruit and the cake was nutty and creamy.  The ice cream had a cookie spoon and a regular spoon at the side. And the candied ginger finished everything off perfectly with a spot of sweet and sour.

I’d highly recommend Acqua Pazza for a special lunch.  It’s not cheap, but not wildly expensive either.  It’s good for a fun occasion, and it’s excellent for dessert.

Molecular Gastronomy – Flatiron Grill

flatiron aimeeThe words “molecular gastronomy” are fairly new in the English lexicon, but the combination of food and science that they invoke are a delight of the senses.  The chefs experiment with various tastes and textures, cooking methods and sensations in the mouth and out comes this spectacularly EXPERIENTIAL meal. In Japan, the Tokyo American Club just opened such a restaurant called Flatiron, which they describe as “Part interactive show, FLATiRON is a two-hour culinary journey that presents mouthwatering ingredients in eye-poppingly creative ways.”  Indeed, we enjoyed every second of the three-hour experience.  Instead of just writing, I’ll tell the tale of our culinary flight of fancy in pictures.

First, the menu, which includes the wine pairing list – ten courses and pairings! There was an option to cut down on the wines, which we did.  None of us wanted ten full glasses of wine.  As it was, with a few sly refills, we had more than our allotted five glasses. To that end, please note that my photos and my written notes become less and less clear as the wine helped along the yummy courses and the night progressed!

flatiron1Next, our own private chef starting to prepare our first course

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The first course: a small spoonful of black pork, dried strawberry, and a coffee-flavored marshmallow and a second spoon of hazelnut powder on a basil leaf.

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Course number two: a buckwheat crepe that held a real treat inside – salmon with violet mustard and a cheese called burrata that is specially handmade – it is only fresh for seven days. It’s a sinful mixture of mozzarella and cream that somewhat melts the salmon into itself. The chef had already jellied some port wine and drizzled it over the “burrito” in a ribbon.

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The next course consisted of a few clams surrounded by caviar with a special foam on top made of curry.

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Here is a shot of our personal chef grilling vegetables and salting them lightly with a special instrument that shines a light where the salt is going to land.

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This is a photo of the truffle paste Flatiron makes – you may have heard of truffle oil, but this is the paste!  Diners can squeeze on as much or as little as they’d like of the elixir.

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This is my friend with the cheese drizzler and truffle paste, preparing to create her own “reverse” fondue.

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This next course involved fruit flambe!

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With the fruit, we had something the chef called “the thirty-second” flavor.  He tested us on why it was so named.  I’ll leave you to guess a little bit too – but think of the places where an American in particular might buy ice cream – a place right by National Azabu in Tokyo….  Anyway, the thirty second flavor involves putting foie gras on an “anti-griddle” which looks like a regular griddle but is really NEGATIVE fifty degrees.  The foie gras turned into ice cream!  Unexpectedly delectable.

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For the next course, the chef wrapped fish in a sakura leaf and placed it on a large ice cube that had an LED light in it.

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Then he added smoke.  Real smoke – to smoke the fish.  The smoke had a cherry wood element in it for a divine smell and flavor.

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Next we had a lamb course served with a bit of mushroom flavored cappuccino.

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Here’s a great photo of the grill – the chef poured a little chardonnay on it so we could watch it dance around!

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After giving us the chardonnay in a bowl, the chef added some liquid nitrogen so we had to stir stir stir very quickly to create the chardonnay juice ourselves.

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Here is the finished product – chardonnay as a solid with black Hawaiian volcano salt on it. Somehow it melted in the mouth in a mass of salty, wine goodness.

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Please note: this next photo does NOT contain saran wrap. Regular saran wrap would melt on the grill. In order to cook the pork for the next course, the chef covers it with a saran-thin sheet of glass.  Yes, that is glass over the pork on the grill.

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Here is the course he was cooking.  It may have been the most flavorful of the night.  It’s pork that was marinated in chamomile tea for 4 hours drizzled with a surprising combination of cassis and beets with Sambucca. It’s sitting on a bed of Savoy cabbage, adding to the mix of flavors.

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The final course, dessert, gave us some real giggles.  First of all, when was the last time you had pop rocks???  Here’s the initial photo of the panna cotta with the very still pop rocks on top.

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Next, the chef mixed lychee juice with liquid nitrogen.

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Here’s the pour-over!  The chef made us all wear protective eye-wear because the pop rocks danced around in the bowl reacting to the nitrogen! It was so delightfully playful.

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And finally, dessert as a whole – almost too good to eat – but not quite.  We managed to really enjoy it with the cold sensation mixing with the popping in our mouths.

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Here is a shot of the four of us, celebrating a fun birthday dinner – in goggles.

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The whole thing took about 3 hours from our special “welcome drink” to the end, when we had a cup of tea to finish the night.  It was expensive, but a real treat for a food and entertainment. You do not need to be a member of The American Club to go – it’s open to the public.  Go for your next special occasion and let me know what you get – the menu changes seasonally.  Food and fun!

Where Can You Find The Fake Food in the Window?

kappabashi7Any restaurant in Tokyo might owe its existence, at least its accoutrements, to Kappabashi.  Kappabashi is an area of Tokyo between Ueno and Asakusa that is dedicated completely to the restaurant business, comprising hundreds of stores selling everything from knives to pots to dishware and flatware, and everything in between.  There are even stores that sell restaurant decorations, cold cases, and tables and chairs as well as signs. While the stores sell mostly to restaurants, they’re happy to have any regular person as a customer, too.

However, a big part of the charm of Kappabashi is finally solving the mystery of the plastic food that so many Japanese restaurants proudly display in their windows.  Kappabashi has shop after shop of fake food for sale – plastic versions of main dishes, side dishes and desserts, ranging from pasta, to soba, to meats to crepes.  It’s a wonderland of plastic food!

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Those cases above are full of sandwiches – all fake.  Restauranteurs can buy the entire sandwich or its component parts to show customers what is available at their establishment.

 

 

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This one above is one of my favorites – look at all of that marbleized and FAKE beef.  I don’t like my beef like that in real life and I definitely don’t like it in plastic.  However, if I owned a teppanyaki or shabu shabu restaurant in Japan, I would want to show my customers how wonderful my beef is – and this is how the Japanese love their beef.  Also, check out that sushi. Every possible shape, fish and form is available in plastic, so the sushi shops can display the very best outside in their windows.

 

 

 

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This one above is so interesting – fruits and desserts – all plastic.  What I didn’t count on is the high price.  One of those parfaits was 5,000 JPY – upwards of $50!  The restaurant owners have to be careful and creative when choosing what t0 display.

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!

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This particular shop had everything – and I mean everything – one might need in a kitchen to cook with. Stainless steel pots, copper pots, bamboo steamers, spatulas, and whisks, just to name a few items.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

You have to imagine block after block of these stores.  Some were fancy and some were casual.  Some were expensive and some were less so. (Nothing is cheap in Tokyo) We walked down one side of the street and back up the other side.  It was something else.  If you have any cooking inclination at all,  I’d highly recommend a trip to Kappabashi.

 

 

What Is a Sushi Mensch?

Full-on squid over rice, handmade by Yasuda-San

Full-on squid over rice, handmade by Yasuda-San

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to Shushi Bar Yasuda in Minami Aoyama, in Tokyo.  Friends of ours were able to get the reservation only because we booked early, and we felt lucky to be able to get in. Chef and owner Naomichi Yasuda, had come straight from his New York establishment last year to return to the country of his birth and astound customers with his attention and taste.

Yasuda-san opened Sushi Yasuda in New York City’s Midtown in 1999 with two partners.  The press on their website  is unbelievable, with the top ratings from The New York Times, Zagat, and Martha Stewart.  Food and Wine and even The Wall Street Journal paint glowing reviews of the quality of the food, the service, the atmosphere and even the owners of the place.

We managed to get reservations at Sushi Bar Yasuda in Tokyo on a Saturday night, which was impressive because the place is small, typically Japanese, with a bar of eight seats and two tables, which seat only 6 more.

I have had fresh and wonderful sushi in Japan in the past ten years, but each

Yasuda-san himself!

Yasuda-san himself!

singular flavor and mouth sensation at this place made me feel like we were having a creative meal of exquisite taste.

Our course included several different fish, prepared in mostly nigiri style, over rice:

  • Steelhead salmon
  • Cherry trout from Aomori prefecture
  • Amberjack
  • Shima aji
  • Buri Yellowtail
  • Maguro (Tuna)
  • Hotate (Scallop)
  • Ayu trout (only in Japan)

Each piece has its own bit of wasabi, if it’s supposed to have wasabi.  Otherwise it is meant to be left to the taste the chef commands. We were allowed a tiny bit of soy sauce, but only the slightest bit so it wouldn’t interrupt the taste of the fish.

The piece de resistance, however, was the uni, or sea urchin.  I don’t normally prefer it.  I find that it often tastes “fishy” and the slimy sort of texture turns me off.  But the course had been so wonderful up to that point that I couldn’t say no to trying the uni.

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The uni was delectable!

I couldn’t believe it – for the first time, I loved uni.  Yasuda-san served it with a dab of Sardinian crystal salt and just a hint of citrus.  The taste sort of exploded into a sweet goodness in my mouth.

Yasuda-san is expecting a visit this spring from Anthony Bourdain of the TV show “No Reservations” – they are foodie buddies.  Bourdain will probably feature the new Tokyo shop on the show.

A consummate New Yorker, even though he’s thoroughly Japanese, Yasuda-san greeted us with a cheery “hello” in English, and then chatted away to us as he prepared our dishes.  Having had many Jewish customers in New York, he referred to himself as the “Sushi Mensch” – Mensch being the Yiddish word for Man, but with the cultural connotation of a good man, one who is upstanding and follows through on his obligations.  Indeed, Yasuda-san is a Mensch of the first order.

Sushi Bar Yasuda is a wonderful, experiential dining event.  I can’t wait to go back.

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Awe and Beauty

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

There’s not much that could have prepared us for the beauty and grand scale juxtaposed with the abject poverty of what we experienced in Siem Reap, but it is definitely something we will never forget now that we’ve seen it.

Siem Reap is the name of the town closest to the ruins of Angkor, which date back to the 12th century.  Sometime in the 15th century, the Thais overran the city and the Angkor society was abandoned, along with their towering and ornate buildings and temples.  It wasn’t until the French sent expeditions into the Cambodian jungles in 1901 that the Angkor ruins were rediscovered.   Siem Reap was making itself into a tourist destination in the early part of the twentieth century when Pol Pot and the communist regime came to power in the late sixties and evacuated the city, forcing residents into the countryside.  It wasn’t until Pol Pot’s death in 1998 that Siem Reap was again discovered by international tourists and started re-making itself once again.  Since 2005 it has become  a major hub of tourism in Asia, hosting many beautiful hotels and other buildings.  So far, despite international influences, the city remains true to its Cambodian heritage.

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Angkor Thom

Our hotel arranged for us to have a car and driver for our two days in the city, and they were truly wonderful, taking excellent care of us.

Our first stop was, what Marc felt, the most impressive, Angkor Thom.  The soaring towers and detailed architecture  made us feel quite small in comparison.  The faces and etchings were carved intricately into the stone and we could see what had once been a palace for a great king.  We saw battle scenes telling stories on the walls, all carved in great detail along with perfectly balanced doors, windows and balustrades.

After the Elephant Terrace, our next stop was the Bayon Temple, which has a particularly interesting claim to fame as the temple in which “Lara Craft, Tomb Raider” was filmed.  According to our guide, the Bayon Temple has taken over Angkor Wat as the biggest

The tree built right into Bayon Temple

The tree built right into Bayon Temple

tourist draw in the city since the movie came out.  The trees in the Bayon Temple were particularly impressive, built directly into the architecture.  It’s unclear whether that has happened over time or was intentional, but now the trees cannot be removed for fear of disrupting the foundation of the temple.

Particularly impressive and intriguing to me were the dinosaur carvings at Bayon Temple.  I’m still in awe: how did people know about dinosaurs earlier than the 1500’s?  Amazing.2013-03-24 00.20.02

Later in the day, our guide took us to the Tanle Sap Lake to see the floating villages.  These people live on the river year round, having their own shops, schools and life.

The second morning in Siem Reap, my dream came true: we went to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.  A week later I can still close my eyes and see the red ball of fire stretching and reaching for the five towers, to climb above it as time marches through the day.  We did climb all the way to the top of the temple, but the real majesty lay in that glorious sunrise.

The floating village on the Tanle Sap Lake at sunset

The floating village on the Tanle Sap Lake at sunset

The town of Siem Reap itself is also coming into its own with the tourist trade.  There are a few markets, including a night market.  The streets are littered with cafes.  What struck me as funniest, however, are the sidewalks chock full of easy chairs.  That’s right – there may as well be a stack of barca-loungers right on the sidewalk.  All of them are placed in front of massage place – you can get a 15-60 minute massage right on the street.  Fifteen minutes cost only $1, while an hour was $20.  Hard-pumping, Asian massage for $1 – wow.  I didn’t do it on the street, but I had an incredible massage at our resort.  Wow!

We loved the Khmer food.  We first tried Amok, which was a type of sweet-ish curry, yellow in color.  Though we tried it with chicken and pork, it went best with fish.  We also enjoyed Luk Lok, a sauteed beef dish with strong, savory, thick brown sauce.  Of

Our wonderful guide told us story after story of the rise and fall of the Khmer society at Angkor

Our wonderful guide told us story after story of the rise and fall of the Khmer society at Angkor

course we drank mango, pineapple and passion fruit juice everywhere!

We stayed at the Borei Angkor Resort and Spa, which I cannot recommend enough.  Not only is it beautiful, with stunning landscaping, generous rooms, and delightful amenities, but we were treated like kings by every single member of the staff.

The poverty, however, was all around us, right next to, across from and around the tourist-designed parts of town.  People came up to us to ask us to buy things; people begged a bit; and the shacks with really only three walls lined most roads.  We saw several

This little girl didn't have a boat; she was on the river in a pot.

This little girl didn’t have a boat; she was on the river in a pot.

kids barely dressed who asked us for money.  We had many incidences of just shaking our heads at the opulence of a hotel placed next to a cluster of shanties.  Things happen in fits and starts, we understand.  But it was hard not to want to take some of those kids home with me.

We were sorry to leave Siem Reap after only two full days; we felt like we barely touched the surface of this magical world of various times all mixed into one.  I have a feeling that was not our last trip to that part of the Asia.

Hanoi – A Spinning Bustle of Activity

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at night, so we didn’t get our first taste of it until we stepped out of our marble-laden, oasis of a hotel in the heart of the old city, onto the dirty, crowded and noisy streets after breakfast that first morning.  It was akin to the scene in “Enchanted” where the Cinderella figure leaves her fairytale land and pops up in the New York sewer system.  We had been warned that the streets would be crazy, but we weren’t fully prepared for the any-which-way-ness of them.  The motorbikes, “cyclos” (a guy on a bicycle – push bike – ferries up to two people around town), cars, and bicycles all shared the road space with not an inch to spare.   Lane demarcations were little more than suggestions and traffic lights merely optional.  There were crosswalks, but they amounted to little more than paint on the street.  Crossing the streets was an exercise in bravery and being purposeful.  Our method was to wait for a reasonable opening, step off the curb and

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn't come close to showing the true craziness, though.

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn’t come close to showing the true craziness, though.

just GO.  Oh, we weren’t reckless or anything, especially with our kids, but we did have to use a certain amount of faith – and even prayer – to get across streets, and sometimes even down them if they circumstances were dire.  By the end of the day it became entertaining to see how on earth we were going to get from point A to point B safely.  At first the constant honking really bothered our daughter, but then we realized people didn’t use horns to ask people to get out of their way, rather it was the opposite: a gentle honk every few minutes reminded people you were there.  The streets, in most areas of the city, were like nothing we had ever experienced, even in all of our travels.

One skinny building!

One skinny building!

The architecture of the city is also amazing. One guide told us that buildings are taxed according to the amount of street space they take up – so they strive to take up as little street space as possible.  Therefore most buildings are tall – and very skinny.

That being said, the city of Hanoi has a lot to recommend it.  The Temple of Literature, our first stop, was rebuilt from the ancient times when it was home to scholars and priests to study all measures of art, literature, politics and other high ideals.  It’s a stunning courtyard of homage to the past and past scholarship that includes UNESCO protected statues.  Sometimes I stand awestruck before these religious statues and carvings that are older than the country of my birth.

The French Quarter of the city has fancy, old hotels and the local stock exchange building.  While the streets are wide and tree-lined,

The turtles of learning - a UNESCO protected set of statues.

The turtles of learning – a UNESCO protected set of statues.

they are no less crazy.

All over the city, sidewalks were littered with low-slung Ikea-like, child-sized plastic tables and chairs in front of cafes where people sit and eat lunch, snacks, dinner and drinks.  It’s astounding to pick your way through the people as you walk.

The old city, where we were staying, seems like it was lifted straight out of 1975.  The streets are narrow and crowded, with shop after shop hawking wares.  Bargaining is an art form, trying to make both sides pleased with a sale.  Some people are just carrying goods for sale and they approach others, especially

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

foreigners, to buy from them.  That bothered both of my kids a lot – they didn’t like turning people – mostly women – down when they asked us to buy from them, and my husband and I might turn our backs if we didn’t want to buy.  Of course, we did buy many things and even went through the weekend night market when we were there on the hunt for bargains, of which we found many, including sneakers for my son and a fun handbag for my daughter.

And we ATE!  The Vietnamese food was simply delicious, and way beyond just the Pho that Americans often think of as Vietnamese.  While we did eat the beef noodle soup, there were also many delectable morsels of pork, chicken, and other noodle dishes to be had.  We ate duck and spring rolls, and drank fresh fruit juice, like mango and watermelon juice, until we practically floated instead of walked.

The hotel where we stayed, as I mentioned, was an oasis from the dirt and grit of the city.  Called the Golden Sun Palace, it is a new,

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

boutique hotel with only 20 rooms right in the bustle of the old city.  Coming in off the streets with the white marble beckoning like a siren song, felt heavenly.  The people were so nice and helpful, and they really did try to please in every way possible.  They were the first to introduce us to the thick, rich Vietnamese coffee and we never looked back.  Either with or without the condensed milk for lightening and thickening, it is delicious in every rich sense.

On our second day in the city we went to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and museum. I was wearing pretty modest shorts, but they wouldn’t let me in with my knees showing.  I had to buy a wrap and put it around my waist in order to go in.  Respect.  It was all pretty surreal to see a preserved body as well as all of the “information” at the museum.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

One of our last stops was the renowned Water Puppet show in the city.  Against a backdrop of

live, traditional music, puppets dance around and through a small pond at the front of the theater, telling traditional Vietnamese stories. It was vibrant and beautiful.

Hanoi is a charming and interesting city if you can get through the pedestrian experience and the interminable grime. I hope to go back there some day.